Celtics Vs. Raptors: Previewing NBA’s Eastern Conference Semifinals

This one should be a hard-fought battle

The Boston Celtics will match up with the Toronto Raptors in the postseason for the first time in NBA history.

The C’s swept the Philadelphia 76ers out the first round of the NBA Playoffs with ease, but don’t let that inflate your hopes for the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Philadelphia fired their head coach Brett Brown after the sweep. Toronto head coach Nick Nurse, meanwhile, just won Coach of the Year.

And while the Sixers seriously suffered from losing Ben Simmons to injury, the Raptors will have less trouble replacing injured point guard Kyle Lowry if need be. Not because he isn’t immensely valuable, but because of how deep Toronto is — especially in basketball IQ.

At this point, Lowry’s status for the series remains unclear. He suffered a left ankle sprain in the first quarter of Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets.

So for all intents and purposes, let’s just assume Lowry and the bag of tricks that come along with him are a go for at least a few games.

Meanwhile, the Celtics will be without Gordon Hayward (ankle) and Javonte Green (knee) the entire series. Double ouch.

Let’s break this one down.

REGULAR-SEASON MATCHUPS
The Celtics and Raptors saw each other four times this year, including in a seeding game in Orlando. Boston owns a 3-1 advantage in the season series thus far.

Aug. 7, 2020: Celtics 122, Raptors 100
Dec. 28, 2019: Raptors 113, Celtics 97
Dec. 25, 2019: Celtics 118, Raptors 102
Oct. 25, 2019: Celtics 112, Raptors 106

Yes, Boston got the best of Toronto in the regular season, but don’t give that much credence. The Raptors were without key players for a few of these losses, and in their lone win, Patrick McCaw went off on a career night. He’s left the Walt Disney World bubble to treat an injury.

So essentially, it’s anyone’s game.

CELTICS OFFENSE VS. RAPTORS DEFENSE
Boston’s offensive ranking: 4th
Toronto’s defensive ranking: 2nd

The Raptors’ defense has been elite all year and has been the best in the bubble, though a sweep against the Nets probably pumped those numbers up a bit. Still, similarly to the Celtics, much of their offense is generated on the defensive side, forcing turnovers and other bad decisions that send them off to the races in transition. Fortunately for Boston, ball security usually isn’t an issue. There is no room for error there, though.

Given that there is no one thing that the Celtics do exceptionally well on offense, their ranked in the league’s top five. But the Raptors can adjust to any defensive style, really, with their length and versatility. And they switch quite a bit, presenting more difficulty for Boston to get away with their pick-and-roll game that torched the Sixers game after game.

Kemba Walker could be dangerous in that regard, but we’ll see how Jayson Tatum responds to the pressure of having guys like Lowry, Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby all up in his grill, depending on how Toronto goes about guarding him.

Driving to the rim and posting up to generate scoring will be harder against the league’s best post defense, though we haven’t seen much of that from the Celtics in the bubble, and the Raptors isolation defense is up there too.

Though they give up some of the most 3-point attempts in the NBA, that’s by design, encouraging tougher shots that usually don’t fall. So if at least two guys between Tatum, Walker and Jaylen Brown can really get cooking from beyond the arc, that will be a problem for Toronto.

But realistically, someone who isn’t one of their primary shooters will have to step up. This is where losing Gordon Hayward could be detrimental, and hopefully, Marcus Smart doesn’t get baited into poor shot selection.

CELTICS DEFENSE VS. RAPTORS OFFENSE
Boston’s defensive ranking: 4th
Toronto’s offensive ranking: 13th

Considering how dominant the Raptors defense can be, the offense leaves some to be desired, and the Celtics can gain an advantage on this end of the ball.

Boston and Toronto’s defenses are similar in a few ways. For one, the Celtics defense also creates a lot of offense, with Brown and especially Smart so pesky at forcing turnovers and creating chaos. But unlike the C’s, ball security and half-court offense is a weakness in the Raptors’ game, as is their effort in pulling down offensive boards, posing an advantage to Boston on the glass.

Enes Kanter is a rebounding machine. He had a great series against the Sixers, but his skill set doesn’t match up as well against Toronto and would be a liability defending the perimeter or getting caught up in the pick-and-roll against Lowry of Fred VanVleet. In fact, he didn’t play a minute earlier this month against the Raptors in their seeding game earlier in August.

And while younger guys like Robert Williams and Grant Williams may have trouble on offense, they could help out on the other side of the ball backing up Daniel Theis at center — especially Robert Williams, with rim protection abilities that could contain Toronto’s guards.

But with the size and strength of guys like Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, the smaller Celtics lineup needs to be cognizant to not go under screens or commit too many fouls in the post. The Raptors likely will make them pay at the free-throw line.

Boston also is similar to Toronto in their willingness to let their opponents take triples, which tends to work well for them as they consistently hold opponents to low 3-point percentages, as we saw in the way they handled the Sixers’ shooters. But still, shooting from beyond the arc perhaps is one of the Raptors’ biggest strengths on offense. They efficiently boast 37 attempts per game with their 37.4 percent from three led by Lowry and VanVleet. And don’t sleep on Norm Powell, either.

So if Lowry misses any time, the Celtics must take advantage.

SCHEDULE
Game 1 — Thursday, Aug. 27 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 — Saturday, Aug. 29 at TBD
Game 3 — Monday, Aug. 31 at TBD
Game 4 — Wednesday, Sept. 2 at TBD
Game 5* — Friday, Sept. 4 at TBD
Game 6* — Sunday, Sept. 6 at TBD
Game 7* — Tuesday, Sept. 8 at TBD
*If necessary

PREDICTION
It’s hard to believe this series won’t extend to six or seven hard-fought games. It’s going to be gritty, and hopefully, a little chippy.

The availability of Lowry could change everything, but the guard missing even one game could be huge for the Celtics to capitalize on. Repeating an NBA Championship will not be easy to do without Leonard, no matter how well Toronto held up without him this season.

There’s just something special going on with this Boston team that exuberates confidence and chemistry.

Celtics in 7.

Thumbnail photo via Ashley Landis/Pool Photo/USA TODAY Sports Images

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